Facebook adds new privacy controls

The rivalry between Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. has a new front: privacy.

Facebook said it would roll out new controls for sharing personal information on the social network on Thursday, giving its more than 750 million users new tools to manage who can see information about them. The company plans to move a number of privacy controls—which previously required navigating to a separate settings page—to users' homes pages and profile pages, next to where they view and post content.

Facebook and other social networks have at times been criticized for designs that lead users to inadvertently share information with a wider audience than they intended. Many Facebook users have hundreds or thousands of friends, and some have have urged the company to make it easier to target smaller groups when posting information.

Google did just that with its competing Google+ offering, which was introduced in June and had amassed 29 million world-wide unique visitors in July, according to research firm comScore Inc. Google+ allows users to build so-called "circles" of audiences for their content, and promises to let users "share just the right things with just the right people."

Chris Cox, Facebook's vice president for product, said his company had been working on the changes for the last six months based on longstanding user requests. "It is all about making it easier to share with exactly who you want and never be surprised about who sees something," he said. Users should "never be surprised about who sees something."

Mr. Cox said making privacy controls easier is "absolutely critical" to Facebook's future success, but added the changes weren't made in response to Google. "We are launching this now because it is ready," he said.

A Google spokeswoman said in a statement: "We welcome Facebook's efforts to give users more control over their privacy because it helps to improve the overall web experience. With Google+ we're creating a new and different approach to make sharing on the Web more like sharing in the real world."

Google is battling Facebook for several reasons. First, Facebook is becoming the "front door" to the Internet for many people as they use it to discover articles and videos through their friends, and much of Facebook can't be searched by Google's search engine. Facebook and other social-media companies have also obtained a slew of personal information about their users that can be used for marketing.

Facebook's privacy changes include adding icons to individual posts so that users can quickly understand and control who gets to see each post. Users will gain the ability to change their minds about who has permission to see a post after it has gone out. Facebook is also renaming the sharing option it formerly called "everyone" to "public."

And, addressing a longstanding gripe by some privacy advocates, Facebook users will now be able to decide whether their names can be attached as a so-called tag to a photo before it is circulated. They won't have the power to delete an unflattering photo posted by another user, but they will be given an option to quickly suggest to the other user that it should be deleted.

The moves are somewhat of a turnabout for Facebook, which in past years appeared to encourage its users to share information with as many of their friends as possible.

"This is Facebook competing on privacy," said Justin Brookman, the director of the consumer privacy project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, who was consulted by Facebook on the newest changes. "People responded well to Google's very controlled, granular settings," he said.

Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that if users feel more confident about who can see the material they are posting, they may start to use the social network even more. "The proof will be in whether people are actually using these controls," said Mr Opsahl, who was also consulted by Facebook on the changes.

(Published by WSJ - August 24, 2011)

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